Film critics may be posing the wrong question when they ask, “Is the movie better than the book?”
The fact is that movies and books are different creatures.
The great literary master James M. Cain, who rarely went to see adaptations of his own novels, seems to have a healthy attitude about the films based on his books.
“People tell me, ‘Don’t you care what they’ve done to your book?’” Cain wrote in the prologue for another novelist. “I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”
Maybe the better question is, “Are movies based on books better?” The answer is a resounding yes.
Let’s take a closer look at a few blockbusters and a few indies coming out this holiday season that are based on really great books.
Show me the Moneyball
Oscar season is often baited with elegant, book-based productions, and this season is no different. One award-season favorite, “The Big Short,” is a sharp, new film based on a nonfiction title of the same name. The film depicts the controversial build-up of the housing and credit bubble in the U.S., and stars an impressive roster of talent that includes Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling, all following a screenplay by director Adam McKay.
LifeZette spoke with author Michael Lewis, and he was prescient in describing the book’s cinematic qualities.
“It was an attempt to tell the story that I found most interesting, how a small handful of investors saw it coming and made a fortune betting, in essence, on the collapse of the financial system,” Lewis told LifeZette. “I kept running into fantastic material that was largely untouched by the broader media — for instance, that a single trader at Morgan Stanley could lose $9 billion on a single trade, and remain anonymous, was incredible to me.”
Despite the financial system being a seemingly dull topic, in “The Big Short,” Lewis brings the same financial acumen and storytelling verve that he brought to “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side,” both of which were adapted for film.
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“Sports is easier to write about because there is always some physical action that can be made to swing on the page,” Lewis said. “Our economic life doesn’t cough up narratives as cleanly, but they are both arenas that tell us a lot about who we are as a people.”
About a girl
“Brooklyn” is another award-winning movie possibly in the running for an Oscar this year. It’s based on a novel by Irish writer Colm Tóibín. This coming-of-age drama stars Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish immigrant named Ellis Lacey struggling to find her place in a foreign land.
The screen adaptation was written by Nick Hornby, who is no stranger to film adaptations, having seen his own novels “High Fidelity” and “About A Boy” successfully translated to the big screen. He also adapted Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” as an Oscar vehicle for Reese Witherspoon, as well as “An Education,” which secured star Carey Mulligan an Oscar nomination in 2009.
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Hornby’s perspective on the matter is noteworthy, having written both screenplays and novels that became screenplays.
“I’m kind of serious about it now,” Hornby told Kirkus Reviews, speaking of his forays into screenwriting. “Before, I was always kind of suspicious of offers to write for film. Now I take those offers more seriously and they’re often irresistible. ‘Wild’ was one of those, and ‘Brooklyn,’ which opened at Sundance, was another. Suddenly you have a few things stacked up and it’s what you’re doing for a while.”
To some, Tóibín’s source material might seem difficult to translate to film, but Hornby said that wasn’t the case at all.
“It’s actually not as internal as you might think,” he said. “That girl is very watchful. I found it incredibly moving, and I think we’ve amped everything up. The way the film has turned out, it’s a bit of an old-fashioned weepie that could really destroy a lot of people emotionally. I think it’s turned out wonderfully.”
Blockbusters don’t get any bigger than Ridley Scott’s recent adaptation of “The Martian,” the debut novel by Silicon Valley-based space nerd Andy Weir about an astronaut trapped on the red planet. In lesser hands (say, Michael Bay’s), the book would have been a big, loud mess and not the love letter to NASA that it ultimately became.
The movie’s merits are largely based on Weir’s decade-long exercise in working through the inherent problems associated with space colonization.
“It wasn’t for a book or anything,” Weir told The South Bay Accent earlier this year. “I was just wondering how we’d do it with today’s technology. Then I said, ‘OK, what if this broke? How do we make sure the crew doesn’t die?’ And then what if these things break? Well, I suppose they could repurpose this. And with all those failure scenarios, I thought, ‘Hmmmm. This might make a pretty interesting story.’ So I created an unfortunate protagonist and subjected him to all of them.”
Because Weir committed his genuine analysis to crafting the original story, the film benefits from his hard work. Even better, with the film closing in on the $500-million revenue mark, sales of Weir’s novels have exploded as well. That’s not bad for an author who originally gave away his book for free.
Rounding out the year
Setting aside a few blockbuster films not based on books (cough, cough, “Star Wars”), there’s no question book adaptations have ruled the theaters this year. Audiences are hungry for movies based on true stories, loose interpretations and outrageously madcap fictional tales. And there are still a few more to come.
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Several weeks ago, Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne starred in the dazzling period drama, “The Danish Girl,” based on David Ebershoff’s novel, which dramatized the life of the first transgender woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Last week, Chris Hemsworth starred in Ron Howard’s adaptation of “In The Heart Of The Sea,” a fictional account by Nathaniel Philbrick, based on the real-life events experienced by 18th-century whalers and a certain great white whale.
On Christmas Day, Leonardo Dicaprio will star in “The Revenant,” based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel. The film stars DiCaprio as a fur trapper seeking revenge in a highly anticipated adaptation, directed by last year’s best director for “Birdman,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Fans, meanwhile, are turning to Netflix to check out other recent book-to-film adaptations they may have missed this year, including whimsical gems like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” based on Jesse Andrew’s novel of the same name, and “Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as the real-life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in an adaptation of the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard K. O’Neill.
The Bottom Line
Movie revenue is astronomical in comparison to most book sales, but do film adaptations ultimate translate into more sales for their authors? Skyrocketing sales of “The Martian” certainly provide evidence in the affirmative. Even a cursory scan of the bestseller list shows a strong correlation between books that have movie adaptations associated with them. The mere announcement that a movie will be made from a book is driving book sales, as evidenced by the spike in sales for Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” which is in production in Hollywood.
Movies may steal some of their best ideas from books, but they repay the favor by serving as feature-length advertisements for reading. For authors, film adaptations do more than just boost sales; they can promote an author’s back catalogue, and keep their novels in the public eye for years to come.
However, the experiences of authors whose books become film adaptations is varied, and not entirely rosy. Thriller writer Marcus Sakey has been down this road already once or twice. His 2008 novel “Good People” was adapted into a film featuring Kate Hudson and James Franco in 2013, but it was critically panned. Another novel, 2007’s “The Blade Itself” was bought by Ben Affleck, who has yet to announce his plans with it.
Additionally, Sakey’s subversive “Brilliance” trilogy, based on super-powered spies caught up in a future war, is in pre-production at Legendary Pictures.
LifeZette talked with Sakey about his book-to-film adaptations, and he insists the novels be viewed on their own merit, independent of a film’s success.
“It’s impossible,” Sakey told LifeZette. “You can’t write a book to be a movie, and if you did, you would write a terrible book that no one would want to make into a movie. I think my writing is fairly cinematic, probably because I watch a lot of movies and always have. But there is no part of my brain while I’m writing thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a phenomenal set piece for the movie.’ I like movies and I’m influenced by that love. It’s a really fun form to play in. But I don’t intend to ever stop writing novels. As much as I love films, they don’t hold a candle to books.”